TALLAHASSEE – Jeb Bush was the son of the sitting U.S. president when he was greeted in Nigeria as a hero, leading a 21-person delegation to the country in 1989.
“The visit was the grandest celebration of U.S.-Nigeria friendship we have seen in recent memory,” read a U.S. State Department diplomatic cable at the time titled “Nigeria Goes All out for Jeb Bush visit.”
During a visit to Lagos, then-Nigerian President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida and former External Affairs Minister Jaja Nwachukwu gave Bush gifts. Bush returned the favor by giving a medal from the inauguration of his father, President George H.W. Bush.
But this was a business trip for Jeb Bush, part of his job helping in sales for MWI Corporation, a South Florida company that last year was found guilty in a federal civil case of misleading the U.S. government to secure taxpayer-funded loans.
New details uncovered by Naples Daily News-Treasure Coast newspapers in depositions and confidential FBI interviews reveal claims that Bush made more on MWI business deals than the $648,000 he has acknowledged publicly and he made money on the Nigeria project at the center of the federal investigation. Former MWI employees contradicted Bush’s earlier statements insisting that he never received a penny from the Nigeria project, but those workers did not provide proof nor did investigators seek it, according to the documents.
Bush, who co-owned the Bush-El company to work with MWI, was never a target or accused of any wrongdoing in the federal case that ended with a verdict last June against the company. Federal investigators could find no evidence tying him to wrongdoing discovered in the Nigeria pump deal, although at the time they didn’t rule it out, according to a confidential January 2002 U.S. Department of Justice memo obtained by Naples Daily News-Treasure Coast newspapers.
“We do not now have evidence that Bush had any involvement in the contracts at issue in the relator’s complaint, though this remains a possibility,” according to the memo.
As Bush prepares a run for president, his business record will come under intense scrutiny. The MWI deal is the second venture in which investors eagerly sought his involvement, yet ultimately the deals ended in litigation and federal scrutiny. Bush also has faced questions about ties to a bankrupt South Florida company whose leaders were convicted of fraud and money laundering.
The Naples Daily News-Treasure Coast newspapers offered Bush an opportunity to review and discuss his company’s work with MWI, but spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said he declined.
“Governor Bush’s previously released tax returns detail all of his earnings from Bush-El. As he has confirmed multiple times, he recused himself from any compensation related to the projects in Nigeria. Anything to the contrary is flat out not true,” Campbell said in a written statement.
“The federal government specifically did not include a company Governor Bush previously worked with in the complaint they filed. Two years ago, a judge in the ongoing MWI litigation specifically declined to include anything related to Bush-El in the litigation because there is not even a mention of the former company in the plaintiff’s complaint. There is nothing suggesting that Governor Bush has done anything that was not appropriate,” Campbell’s statement reads.
For roughly three years starting in 1998, MWI was in the crosshairs of FBI agents and federal prosecutors. And Bush’s name came up several times, according to investigative records and other case documents, including confidential FBI reports of interviews, obtained by Naples Daily News-Treasure Coast newspapers.
Investigators were interviewing former employees of the pump company to determine if they should intervene in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former company vice president. The feds were interested in the case because the Nigeria deal was financed through the Export-Import Bank, a federal entity that offers loans so that U.S. companies can increase exports to spur job creation.
Over a two day span in March 1992, the bank gave final approval to eight separate loans totaling $74.3 million. The money went to Nigeria, which used it to purchase MWI pumps.
In January 2002, federal prosecutors filed a civil case against MWI, accusing the company of failing to disclose nearly $30 million in commissions paid to Alhaji Indimi, its Nigerian sales agent who later became an oil baron and one of the richest people in Africa.
After a more than 12-year legal saga, a federal jury in Washington found MWI guilty in June of not reporting the commissions used to buy luxury cars, mansions, and a swanky golf outing for Indimi.
While never accused of wrongdoing, Bush’s role with MWI came up during FBI interviews and depositions as investigators reviewed the company’s practices. They wanted to know more about Bush-El, the company Bush ran with MWI owner David Eller from 1988-1993 to market MWI pumps oversees.
During his failed 1994 bid for Florida governor, Bush said he reported $648,000 on tax returns for his work at Bush-El, but no income came from the Nigeria project.
Federal investigators heard a different story from former MWI employees, who said he earned a higher figure, although all offered different amounts.
The Justice Department memo citing Bush also references an FBI interview from former employee Mike Carcamo, who worked at MWI from 1988-1994. He told FBI agents that Bush-El had a contract with MWI to receive 3 percent on projects in a handful of countries, including Nigeria.
Irma Needelman, who served as secretary to the company’s sales staff for nine years, also told FBI agents and federal prosecutors that Bush made amounts greater than he had publicly acknowledged from MWI. Another former executive said Bush’s company made 5 percent on projects, including from Nigeria.
The Justice Department memo came from the office of Robert D. McCallum, who ran DOJ’s civil division at the time. A Yale University classmate of President George W. Bush, fellow member of the Skull and Bones society and decades-long friend, Bush appointed McCallum in 2001 as assistant attorney general for the civil division.
In an interview with Naples Daily News-Treasure Coast newspapers, McCallum said he did “not have recollection of the case.”
While his name surfaced in the investigation, Jeb Bush was not cited, nor was Bush-El, in the federal government’s civil complaint. That meant any money he or his company received and anything about his role with MWI could not be brought up at trial.
The whistleblower suit, filed by former company vice president Robert Purcell, did cite Bush-El. Purcell said in his lawsuit, among other things, that commissions to Indimi were higher than Export-Import bank allowed so he could bribe Nigerian officials, and that MWI transferred commissions he was supposed to receive to Bush-El.
Nicole Navas, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on why Bush-El was left out of the government’s lawsuit, noting it’s “still pending litigation.”
Through a company attorney, Eller and other current MWI employees declined comment because of an ongoing appeal in the case. Purcell also declined comment.
Bush-El was a company created, in part, to harness Bush’s political star power, according to testimony in the civil case.
“He was the high lama. I mean, you know, he was God walking on water,” Greg Johnson, the company’s former pilot, said in his deposition of a 1989 trip Bush took to Nigeria for MWI. “I mean, the son of the president of the United States.”
At least three former MWI employees said under oath that Bush received anywhere from $800,000 to 5 percent of MWI sales. While specific sales numbers were not readily available, the company saw a $16 million increase in net sales from 1993 to 1994 attributed primarily to the Nigeria project, according to testimony from the financial officer.
Carcamo worked for the company for six years, including working directly on the Nigeria deal. His boss was Juan Ponce, MWI’s former vice president of international sales. Carcamo told FBI agents that Bush’s contract with MWI provided commissions on sales in a host of countries, including Nigeria.
“Carcamo advised that Jeb Bush had a contract with David Eller in 1989 that entitled Bush to three percent of all sales to Malaysia, Taiwan, Nigeria, Thailand, and Mexico,” according to the FBI report on Caramo’s 1999 interview.
In a recent interview with Naples Daily News-Treasure Coast newspapers, Carcamo said Bush made $1.7 million directly from the Nigerian deal, which was paid in 1993 as he was leaving the company to run for governor. That separate contract was not mentioned in the FBI interview, but Carcamo says he saw a copy of the deal. He could not offer documentation.
Needelman, the former company secretary for nine years responsible for preparing legal documents for national and international shipping, told the FBI in 1999 that Bush made around $800,000 from MWI. Her position with the company was eliminated in 1996.
“Needelman stated MWI gave Jeb Bush hundreds of thousands of dollars (she estimated $800,000) as an incentive for Bush to do public relations work in Nigeria and Egypt,” according to the FBI report of her 1999 interview.
In an interview with Naples Daily News-Treasure Coast newspapers, she said she could not remember all of the specifics surrounding Bush’s payments, but that it was “laughable” that he only made $648,000. During that interview, she said he made more than $1 million.
During his deposition in the whistleblower case, Ponce, the company’s former vice president and Carcamo’s boss, said “Bush-El was to earn 5 percent,” and he further explained the arrangement of 5 percent “of all these projects, which was going to be shared half and half between Jeb Bush” and MWI.
As Bush readies a 2016 run for the White House, he has begun stepping away from business obligations, including positions on company boards. In addition, his business record has come under greater scrutiny, including payments from InnoVida, a now bankrupt South Florida-based materials company.
In 2007, shortly after leaving the governor’s mansion, he signed a $15,000 consulting contract with InnoVida. In 2008, Bush became a board member and later inked agreements with a company subsidiary that would pay him up to 8 percent commissions for developing business in Mexico, South Africa, and Nigeria, according to court documents.
After the massive 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the company received a $10 million federal loan to build housing on the devastated island nation. Ultimately, $3.3 million of the money was paid before federal officials grew suspicious that Claudio Osorio, the company’s chief executive, was mismanaging funds.
In 2012, Osorio and Craig Toll, the company’s chief financial officer, were charged with dozens of counts of fraud and money laundering. A year later, Osorio got a 12 year sentence and ordered to repay $24 million, while Toll got four years and was ordered to repay $3.3 million.
Bush cut ties with the company in 2010 when he began to suspect Osorio was mismanaging funds. When the company filed for bankruptcy, he repaid $270,000 of the $469,000 he made from the company, and returned his $15,000 consulting fee.